Time warps, Peter Dunne and ACT

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

This a “well-strained” post (given that it relates to a comment on a Kiwiblog post about an interview at the Scoop website) but I couldn’t help chuckling at a particularly sharp reader comment about a party which is faring even worse in the polls than ACT: Peter Dunne’s United Future:

United Future – the personality cult without a personality. The interview is classic Peter Dunn[e] isn’t it. Sounds oh so reasonable but actually the sum is meaningless. I remember the 1980’s: yes [Sir] Roger [Douglas] was dynamic and exciting. Peter Dunn[e] can never been accused of that….. even then.

I love the first comment – it summarises the United Future “phenomenon” down to a “t”! In my research I found the depth of feeling about ACT (and let me say, usually against ACT) was remarkable for a party polling such a small amount of support, 1-2% at most. In most cases the strong feelings were almost solely generated by reactions to Sir Roger Douglas, sometimes with a sprinkling of distaste for Rodney Hide’s “muckraking” thrown in (although this was usually tempered by admiration for his dancing routines).

Douglas is that most polarizing of political figures: you either idolize or despise him and there really isn’t much of a middle ground. I did find that some first-year university students were indifferent to him, but this was simply due to lack of first-hand memories of Douglas’s actions during the 1980s.

Dunne’s comments in the Scoop interview on ACT were criticised at Kiwiblog by several others apart from the above contributor. According to Dunne:

The problem with Roger and the whole Act Party is that they’re trapped in a time warp, at the point when Roger was sacked. The world has moved on. The implicit mantra is that if we all went back to 1987 and picked up where we left off, things would be different. Its rubbish.

Symbolising the frosty relationship ACT has with the National Party, Kiwiblog owner David Farrar agreed with this view. But while Douglas does much to generate the perception that ACT simply wants to restart the policies of the 1980s (and as Helen Clark would put it, the “dark days of the ’90’s”), by itself this does not make the policies stupid. Dunne and Farrar would do well to remember that tax cuts, a central policy of the Douglas years in the 1980s (and indeed the plank for which Douglas fell on his sword) are also favourites of the United Future and National parties.

Or let’s pick up an analogy from the social democratic side of the equation: should we not dispense with unemployment benefits and the Welfare State, because we don’t want to be stuck in the “dark old days of the 1930s” and the Great Depression?

It’s easy to come up with slogans (“going back to the ’80’s”, “trapped in a time warp”) – but much harder to give a reasoned critique on exactly why the policies promoted by Douglas and ACT are inadequate. Unfortunately for ACT, Sir Roger Douglas is more despised than idolized (once even describing himself as the “devil reincarnated”) and makes the easiest target in politics for ad hominem attacks.

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